From the author of The Water Dancers and Good Family, an exquisitely crafted novel, set in Ohio in the decades leading to the Civil War, that illuminates the immigrant experience, the injustice of slavery, and the debts human beings owe to one another, witnessed through the endeavors of one Irish-American family.
Cheated out of their family estate in Northern Ireland after the Napoleonic Wars, the Givens family arrives in America in 1819. But in coming to this new land, they have lost nearly everything. Making their way west they settle in Cincinnati, a burgeoning town on the banks of the mighty Ohio River whose rise, like the Givenses’ own, will be fashioned by the colliding forces of Jacksonian populism, religious evangelism, industrial capitalism, and the struggle for emancipation.
After losing their mother in childbirth and their father to a riverboat headed for New Orleans, James, Olivia, and Erasmus Givens must fend for themselves. Ambitious James eventually marries into a prosperous family, builds a successful business, and rises in Cincinnati society. Taken by the spirit and wanderlust, Erasmus becomes an itinerant preacher, finding passion and heartbreak as he seeks God. Independent-minded Olivia, seemingly destined for spinsterhood, enters into a surprising partnership and marriage with Silas Orpheus, a local doctor who spurns social mores.
When her husband suddenly dies from an infection, Olivia travels to his family home in Kentucky, where she meets his estranged brother and encounters the horrors of slavery firsthand. After abetting the escape of one slave, Olivia is forced to confront the status of a young woman named Tilly, another slave owned by Olivia’s brother-in-law. When her attempt to help Tilly ends in disaster, Olivia tracks down Erasmus, who has begun smuggling runaways across the river—the borderline between freedom and slavery.
As the years pass, this family of immigrants initially indifferent to slavery will actively work for its end—performing courageous, often dangerous, occasionally foolhardy acts of moral rectitude that will reverberate through their lives for generations to come.
Gamble's third novel (after Good Family) concerns the lives of the Givens siblings, Irish immigrants who start over in 1819 Cincinnati. Olivia, the book's strong-willed narrator, takes a shine to like-minded doctor Silas Orpheus, who admires her distaste for religion and allows her to surreptitiously dissect corpses with him. Olivia's older brother, James, a successful candle maker who married rich, is initially reluctant to give his blessing for their marriage, as Silas's disreputable brother, Eugene, sends a slave, Tilly, in lieu of a proper dowry. Olivia and Tilly become friendly, and Tilly helps her set up her own business doing hair. Olivia's ambivalence toward slavery dissipates when Silas dies and she meets Eugene's family on their Kentucky property. When Olivia enlists the help of her younger brother, Erasmus, now a Methodist preacher living on a river encampment, to help lead one of the slaves to freedom, Eugene retaliates by demanding that Tilly be returned. Since Ohio is a free state, an ill-fated trial ensues. Olivia and her family are thereafter pulled into the movement to smuggle slaves to freedom. Gamble adeptly chronicles Olivia's transformation from a free-thinking but unaffected young woman into a determined widow who wants to indirectly avenge Tilly. This is a standout depiction of family dynamics, and will appeal to fans of fiction set in pre Civil War America.